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Minnesota River Board agrees to work on problem of finding viewers for drainage projects

WILLMAR -- Never before have so many projects come before the ditch authorities in Minnesota's agricultural counties seeking to improve drainage systems, redetermine benefits, add new laterals or make other expansions.

And never before has the process taken so long to accomplish, according to Kurt Deter, an attorney specializing in drainage law with the Rinke Noonan Law firm.

The Minnesota River Board agreed Monday at its meeting in Willmar to work with the attorney to develop a request for proposals in hopes of finding an independent contractor willing to provide the "viewer" services the law requires when major changes are made to drainage systems.

Viewers are people qualified to determine benefits and damages of drainage systems.

Deter told members of the Minnesota River Board that the "blockage'' in the process is a lack of viewers willing to serve as the lead person on the three-person teams required by law.

Deter said he has been practicing in this field of law since 1978, and has handled more cases involving drainage expansion, improvements and benefit redetermination in the last 14 to 16 months than in all 32 years prior combined.

It's not a shortage of viewers, per se, he told the board.

There are many people qualified and willing to be the number two or number three person on the teams that view lands within a system and determine the values of drainage on the lands.

But in all of Minnesota, there are only four or maybe five persons willing to serve as the lead person on the teams. The lead person is the one who must testify at any hearings or court proceedings associated with a project, according to Deter.

"We need to figure out a way to get more of the people willing to be lead viewers,'' he said.

As it now stands, there can be an 18-month wait before a viewer team will go to work on an assigned project, said Deter.

The backlog can be greater. He pointed out that Martin County is currently seeking a redetermination of benefits on all 238 of its county systems.

Deter said a "perfect storm'' of factors had led to the unprecedented demand by farmers to move drainage projects forward. He cited high land and commodity values, the abundance of undersized systems, the wet period experienced until recently, concerns about how future regulations might affect agriculture, and not the least: "agriculture has money right now.''

State statute requires that viewers be comprised of disinterested persons. The attorney said he does not believe that requirement would prevent the use of private contractors. He also noted that improvements in technology can greatly aid the process, and that a private contractor might have staff with the technical experience and equipment to take advantage of it.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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